Friday, June 26, 2009

Who's in Charge of Heroes?

Who gets decide who's a hero? Why do people become heroes--and how does a country's perspective change over time? I pondered these questions as I read a recent article in the Kyiv Post, Ukraine's best-known English language newspaper, about Ivan Mazepa and the Battle of Poltava. Tomorrow is the 300th anniversary of that battle, where Peter the Great and the Russians defeated the Swedish army in a turning point in a war with Sweden. Poltava is in Ukraine, and the meaning of that battle and of the hetman Ivan Mazepa, is a source of controversy between Ukraine and Russia today.

Ivan Mazepa, a Ukrainian hetman, or chief, allied himself with the Swedes. To Russians, he's a traitor, to today's Ukrainians, he's a hero, representing a nation's bid for independence. I was fascinated to read that the Russian Foreign Ministry warned Ukraine against glorifying Mazepa, saying, "We would like to remind the Ukrainian leadership that playing games with history, especially with a nationalistic overtone, has never led to anything good," a statement that can only seem ironic coming from the former Soviet Union. Russia's president has recently established a commission to counter what he describes as efforts to falsify history by Ukrainians and others (his own effort to play games with history perhaps).

Ukrainians argue that they have the right to decide who will be a hero in their own country, and that although their nation's history has been linked to Russia, it is an independent nation, and should make its own decisions. So to Ukrainians, Mazepa is a hero, on the 10 hrivna note, and with streets named after him.

Suffice to say, this is a discussion that will probably last another 300 years. As I read the article I thought about the hero-making process in this country. When I grew up, the lives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony weren't taught in schools--today, to many Americans, they are heroes. Who made them heroes? In this country, it's a hard to define process--partly official (say, a holiday for Martin Luther King), but also sometimes the long efforts of individual people. Seneca Falls, the birthplace of women's rights, was long ignored, until the efforts of a group of local women brought new attention to the site in the last few decades, leading to the National Park that exists there today.

We've come to assume that all of our heroes may have some flaws--but accept them nonetheless. For a look at one American hero, warts and all, take a look at Maira Kalman's latest installation in her gentle, beautiful views on America, "And the Pursuit of Happiness," for the New York Times about her visit to Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello.

Top to bottom:
Ivan Mazepa
The Battle of Poltava
Harriet Tubman
Two of Maira Kalman's works for the NY Times

Monday, June 22, 2009

Repairing Museums

Over the last few weeks, I've had several conversations with colleagues at museums and other cultural organizations who are looking for every way possible to squeeze nickels and dimes out of their operating budget. Stop getting the local paper? No more office supplies and re-using every piece of paper? No more new gift shop merchandise for a time? Giving up the cleaning staff and professional staff cleaning bathrooms? Small museums aren't in the same boat as colleges. A recent NY Times article talked about what colleges were giving up--from cafeteria trays to HBO in the dorms--but small museums never had many of these "luxury" items.

Most small museums already exist on extremely tight budgets. What's left? And of course, for some organizations, what's left has devolved down to the sale of collections. For the most recent occurrences of that phenomenon, read my colleague Anne Ackerson's latest blog post on Leading by Design.

At the same time, I've also noticed that a number of small museums look slightly more unloved than ever. Duct-taped rips in the carpet, not enough storage space so objects living in hallways, and a slight air of decline.

Pretty depressing, yes? But then I came across this Repair Manifesto, a project of the Dutch art collective Platform 21 and felt slightly encouraged. How does it connect to museums? We're creative people--and we also have a vast reservoir of creativity in our collections to inspire us. It can be good for our imagination and our museums can be places where our community puts its imagination to work. We value ingenuity and we're not about the latest fashion.

How could a museum put these ideas to work? For starters, this manifesto would make a great exhibit. A quick search through some online collections databases provides some ideas.

What about if a museum drew upon the skills of its community and hosted repair days? I've worked on several industrial history projects and the knowledge of retired machinists, tool-and-dye makers, locomotive engine makers and others is astounding. Events like this not only repair items, but also honor and acknowledge a community's collective expertise. I know some of these guys could help repair my non-working iron, or broken chair leg, or whatever, and I bet young people could repair some of that current technology that just gives up (or I give up on). And not just machine repair--how about all those mostly lost to many of us needlework skills of mending zippers and the like?

But don't stop there. Museums could go a step further and think about repair in a metaphorical sense. Doing this, you could develop programs that bring diverse parts of your community, the ones who never talk to each other, together to talk. Check out the Living Library program or the Lower East Side Tenement Museum's Kitchen Conversations for inspiration. This is where you can make a real difference--and perhaps do more than just duct-tape your community together.

Feedsack Dress, Smithsonian Institution
Swanson Shoe Repair, Seattle, Photo by Joe Mabel
Tractor Repair, Manzanar Relocation Center, Library of Congress

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fun and Learning, with a Little Evaluation Too

Love this! Above, the new Rocket Park Mini Golf Course which opens this weekend at the New York Hall of Science in Queens. In a NY Times article, science reporter John Tierney conducted an evaluation, if you will, of what fourth graders learn. Tierney worked with an astrophysicist of the American Museum of Natural History to design that evaluation--a quiz to test before and after knowledge of the two fourth graders he played with.

And, they did learn a bit about black holes, space ships, gravity and more. That astrophysicist, Dr. Michael Shara, concluded, "The golf is fulfilling the museum's mission. Kids will learn a little. Adults will learn a little. The golf is good fun. And the rockets are cool."

Isn't that what we want for visitors? Some fun, some learning? Absolutely on my to-do list the next time I'm in New York...and very nice to read a piece of news, amidst the doom and gloom of layoffs, that's really about fun, imagination and a museum.

Monday, June 15, 2009


When I was in Washington a couple weeks ago, I was looking up museum hours, and remembered the summer I lived in Washington--and how great it was that the Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery were free and open late. I was unemployed that summer and it was a great joy to be able to just wander in, in the evening, when the tourists had gone home, and enjoy the collections, the exhibits, and the spaces.

That memory made me wonder about museum hours today. I see museums cutting back hours, but perhaps we should be figuring out how to increase hours, or at least to change them to times more convenient to our audiences--or our potential audiences. Many large urban museums have days when they're open late--but a quick search of small upstate New York museums show that few have embraced changing hours--notably the Ontario County Historical Society and the Arkell Museum both have later hours.

I was curious if other museums had contemplated change, so posted a query to the Upstate History Alliance list-serv. I was surprised to get few responses, but pleased to get this thoughtful one from Star D'Angelo, director of the Shaker Heritage Society:
We have been discussing this issue a lot lately. My museum is interested in changing our operating hours. Changing our operating hours will require reprinting a lot of costly marketing materials not to mention the time we would invest in updating our info on websites, travel catalogs, etc. I'm thinking that any change will need to be made at the same time that we launch a new marketing effort.

We may start by testing some evening hours next summer to see what kind of response we get before investing in the transition. Currently we are open Tues-Sat 9:30-4pm because that is how it has always been. We probably won't be able to afford adding staff to expand hours so if we do stay open later during the summer months it will mean asking current staff to alter their work schedules so that we would open later and close later during one or two days of the week.

One other thing we are doing is making walking tour brochures available for after hours visitors. We will eventually consider cell phone tours that could be accessed at any time. Buildings obviously would not be open but at least people could get some information and see the exteriors of our nine historic structures while enjoying the cemetery, herb garden, etc.
In the last few weeks, I've noticed that at several different malls in the evening there have been very few people. This downturn in the economy may represent a real opportunity for museums to attract visitors away from shopping, which costs more money, to museums, which cost little. Star's approach--understanding the costs, the need for change, the marketing needs, and the need for staff adjustment--is one that may pay definite rewards.

But what's keeping museums from it? I heard a few, "we've always done it this way," some "it's easier to find volunteers during the day," (Really? how about people who work?), and perhaps most annoying to me, the idea that staff are unwilling to change their work schedules. I've run a small museum and worked with many others. I know how hard the staff work--but I also know that many organizations are stuck in ruts. I believe that the adventurous, forward-thinking museums will come out best from these tough economic times, and that those who say, "we've always done it that way," will find themselves stranded along the roadside, left behind.

Top to bottom:
First Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum
Museum closed sign, Kyiv, from Sergii Kovalev's Flickr
Local history closed sign, Great Britain, from Andy Roberts' Flickr

Friday, June 12, 2009

World War II and Art in Ukraine

An article in the Art Newspaper reports on the work done by several scholars--in the US and Ukraine--on the losses suffered by Ukrainian art museums during World War II.

From the Art Newspaper:
At a conference in Moscow in February, “Trophies—Losses—Equivalents: Cultural Items as Victims of War” (The Art Newspaper, April 2009, p20), some Russian scholars and experts reiterated claims that western nations were failing to return items looted from the Soviet Union. However, the matter became embarrassing for the Russians when Patricia Grimsted, research associate of Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute, argued that many so-called Soviet losses, which the Russians claim as their own, were in fact items looted from the territory of what is now an independent Ukraine.

“In all the books in the West about restitution there is no information about Ukraine’s cultural losses, except for one book by Patricia Grimsted,’’ said Mr [Sehii] Kot [of the Institute for History of Ukraine at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences]. He says that most authors use “Russia” as a synonym for the Soviet Union. “When speaking about Russian losses during the war, Russian officials often show total figures for the USSR,” said Mr Kot.

All of Ukrainian territory was occupied by Germany, whereas in Russia the troops did not succeed in occupying occupied Moscow and Leningrad, the two main repositories of cultural treasures. While most Moscow and Leningrad collections, such as the Hermitage Museum, were evacuated by the Soviet government, “only a maximum of 3% of Ukraine’s 3.5 million museum items were evacuated”, Mr Kot added.

The Nazis systematically looted Ukraine’s cultural treasures, which by the end of the war accounted for about 55% of all Soviet cultural losses from museums. Losses included as many as 250,000 items missing from 21 major Ukrainian museums, and about 50 million books. Around 150 of Ukraine’s 174 museums suffered severe physical damage.

It was not only a matter of quantity. About 74% of the most valuable Soviet cultural losses came from Ukraine museums, Mr Kot claimed. These include about 300 Dutch and Flemish 16th- and 17th-century paintings from the Uman regional art museum. The paintings have not been seen since the Nazi occupation. In addition, about 800 precious icons assembled by the Nazis from various museums, and which dated from the 11th to 18th centuries, also disappeared.

According to Ms Grimsted, the Ukrainian government still needs to devote more resources to research this issue: “Perhaps Ukraine should follow the Russian example in this respect and establish a centralised website with lists and illustrations.”

After the war, the Soviets recovered many works of art from Germany, but research shows that Germany was not alone in depriving Ukraine of its cultural heritage. According to Ms Grimsted, the Americans returned to the Soviets about 534,000 cultural items from 1945 to 1948, and about 167,000 of these items originated from Kiev. However, many items never made it home, and instead settled in cultural institutions in Leningrad and Moscow.

Mr Kot said Russian museums rarely want to cooperate in determining just how much looted Ukrainian art they possess. At the end of the 1990s, however, Ukrainian researchers learned Russia was in possession of 26 mosaics and frescoes from the walls of the 12th-century St Mikhail’s Cathedral in Kiev that the Soviets destroyed in the 1930s. After years of negotiations, 11 of the frescoes, held in the Hermitage, were returned to Ukraine in two shipments: February 2001 and February 2004. The others remain in Russia.

Ms Grimsted says that Ukraine must also do more about the art that it looted from Germany. “Ukraine should be more open about trophy receipts,” she said.

While in Ukraine I heard several stories from museum staff about the destruction during World War II. At the Donetsk Regional Art Museum, the entire collection was destroyed. Current staff members at the National Museum of Toys had worked with staff who had saved the museum's collection by taking it home, and then returning it after the war. Colleagues interested in research in Russian collections often mentioned that it was very difficult to gain access to Ukrainan materials in Russian archives and museums.

The misunderstanding about the characterization of all Soviet losses as Russian losses is common. Some friends and colleagues in the US asked about how my time in Russia was...I was in Ukraine! I'd reply, with an explanation of the difference. As an independent nation, Ukrainians rightly make important distinctions about their heritage as separate from the overall Soviet state.

But as Ms. Grimstead says above, the Ukrainians also still possess some "trophy art," taken from the Germans. In recent years some of this art has returned to its country or owners of origin and I'm hopeful that increasing openness will lead to increased collaboration and sharing of information.

Top: The new St. Michael's Cathedral, Kyiv

Bottom: Toys from the National Toy Museum, Kyiv

Monday, June 8, 2009

It's All About Me

Well, not just me, but visitors in general. As Stephen Weil so memorably wrote, museums are undergoing a shift from being about something to being for somebody. It's interesting to see the ways that this newish approach is being played out in the marketing, promotion and visitor experiences. Above, a banner for the Ethnographic Museum in Krakow, Poland (photo courtesy Amy Forster Rothbart). Below, an information stand outside the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. I haven't been to the Ethnographic Museum, but the Phillips has plenty of tremendous, amazing art to feature in their promotions--but what do they show to the passerby? Visitors enjoying themselves.

The Phillips is an old favorite--I used to live nearby--and it was a pleasure to revisit. The idea of a conversation between the art and visitors--Duncan Phillips' original idea--is beautifully carried out. The visitors' guide asks questions as a way of providing information--What should I not miss? Why isn't my favorite painting always on view? Where should I start? A simple gallery guide for adults and children to use together also uses effective question asking and encourages family visitors to, in Phillips' words, "linger as long as they can for art's special sort of pleasure."

I was intrigued by the cafe at the Phillips--it's not just a cafe. At the moment it's an art installation and cafe, thisisnotthatcafe produced by the artists' group, db Foundation. By expanding on, altering, and creating new elements within a cafe setting, the artists bring life to a cafe space. Like what? The selection of books in the cafe is regularly rearranged and re-ordered according to different systems, giving visitors a chance to think about the books themselves but also the ways in which all of us categorize our collections. A little installation, below, explains the process. And that, of course, brings it all back to me--how would I classify? What interests me?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What I Learned in Ukraine 5: There's Someone Out There

Remember that old Carl Sagan project where they tried to figure out what language and symbols to send into outer space? That's it above. That's sort of what I feel like when I write blog entries. I always knew that I had some readers (Hi Mom!) but really, until I figured out how to install Google Analytics, I had no idea who, or if anyone, read my blog.

But now I know. During my four months in Ukraine I had readers from more than 75 countries--from Argentina to the United Arab Emirates and everywhere in between. As far as I can tell, people found this in all kinds of ways--some from links like blogs of friends and colleagues Anne Ackerson and Susie Wilkenning; others from museum bloggers in places like Portugal and Germany. Yet more from places like globalvoicesonline or museumblogs. Others of you, I believe, are part of the large and active Ukrainian diaspora, particularly in the US and Canada.

Many of you landed through search queries. Lots of you wanted to know about Chernobyl today, but the other searches that sent readers to here were incredibly varied. Like what? For instance, here's some search terms that led you to the uncataloged museum:
  • interesting place of donetsk
  • why do museums collect
  • boring houses
  • commerce or conscience
  • sidewalk museum
  • boring historic site
  • crusty artifacts
  • family traditions in ukrainian village
  • the best museum in Ukraine I have ever visited
So what did I learn? (although I know I'll continue to learn much more from and about Ukraine, this is my final post on the topic) I learned that you never know--you never know what you'll learn, and in museums or on the web, you never know who you'll connect with. And for all my Ukrainian colleagues, keep reading and I'll see you next year!

What I Learned in Ukraine 4: History is Hard

As I wrote the title to this post, I thought, "no kidding!" But I think it's worth remembering that history is hard. It's hard to understand, to document, to write, and to present in museums or on the web. It doesn't matter whether it's the history of slavery in the United States or the history of Soviet times in Ukraine, or the history of why 1960s downtown urban renewal failed in your community or why the carpet factories all closed.

Ukraine is just emerging into a time when history can be made up of multiple voices. Among the many, many topics under reconsideration are the Holodomor, or Great Famine, of 1932-33, the Holocaust and World War II, and even the 18th century Battle of Poltava. Some of the new work is aimed entirely at refocusing narratives into a more national, more Ukrainian story. In some cases, I think, the old Soviet narratives have been partially discarded, but there's an uncertainty about what to replace them with. At one point one of my students commented that she didn't think that museums should be presenting the history of Soviet times until historians had finished studying it.

If the past twenty years have shown us anything, it's that there is no end to re-thinking and re-interpreting history--and we shouldn't be waiting until academic historians are done! Few museums in Ukraine yet embrace the idea of museums as community center, as a place for conflicting and multiple viewpoints although I hope that day will come.

Towards the end of my time in Ukraine, some friends and I went to visit Babi Yar. Today, Babi Yar is a pretty, though perhaps a bit neglected, city park. However, in 1941, it was something very different. On the weekend of September 29-30, Nazis and collaborators murdered more than 33,000 people here, mostly local civilians and many of them Jews, and threw them into a mass grave. The killings continued and it is estimated that hundreds of thousands were murdered here and thrown in the ravine. It's an atrocity on an almost unimaginable scale at a site that today, seems prosaic and everyday.

The Soviets resisted any attempt to focus on Jews killed at Babi Yar, but in 1976, a monument was built that commorated the deaths of all Soviet citizens. This is a place though, where the many different stories now play out upon the landscape. On the site and in the neighborhood are monuments specifically to Ukrainian nationalists, to children killed there, marking a proposed Jewish community center, and several others. But it doesn't seem a place where conversation and dialogue could happen--but rather each monument seems to have staked out its small place in the landscape--a sort of historical stand-off.

History is hard--but sometimes artists help us understand it the best. An excerpt from Yevgeni Yevtushenko's poem, Babi Yar:

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I'm every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

Images: Monuments at Babi Yar, April, 2009